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Look For What You Don't Know Exists

Updated: May 18, 2020

What: Byzantine Period (4th-15th century CE)

Let's bring it wayyyyy back.

Hello! And welcome back to Carivaggio. Today we are going to do something a little different. Lately I have been taking specific paintings and breaking them down to reveal deeper meanings. This has been super fun and exciting for me as I get to put each painting under a microscope. However, I began to realize that I was doing too much of the work for you.

Today, I want to zoom out, and teach you how to look for things that you do not know exist. This way, when you are in a museum (or virtually in a museum thanks to coronavirus) you will be able to at least understand what you are looking at by understanding art history as a whole.

In this post, we are going to take a Byzantine painting and use it as a guide to understand early religious works as a whole. Paintings from this era are fairly standardized and have many similar identifiers. In other words, if you learn about one, you will be able to identify many from the same period. From this series, I want you to be able to identify paintings on your own just by understanding a few key concepts.


Byzantine art spans way back and rolls over into many centuries. The Byzantine Empire itself existed from the 4th century CE and was not dissolved until 1453 CE (that is one long ass empire). Byzantine art comes from the Eastern Roman empire (Byzantine Empire) and evolved from Christian Greek culture. Because of this much of Byzantine art has a religious theme. Byzantine took from its Greek roots in that artists did not just create forms but the artist were connecting their imagery with meaning and divinity. Byzantine art differs from classical works (I say classical and mean ancient Greek and Roman) due to the unrealistic nature of the figures. It's works are not supposed to connect with you in a sort of human way like classical art did - Byzantine art is there to reflect the rise of Christianity and evoke seriousness and stillness in the viewer. There were many artistic periods within the Byzantine Empire but much of the art and imagery is universal throughout. Since the Byzantine Empire lasted so long, and yielded so much art, it is safe to say that you will encounter one of these works in some museum or another. I understand that these works may not be as alluring as the deeply intricate works of the Renaissance and other later periods, but without the Byzantine era there would be none of those periods to even evoke those senses of allure.

All of art history is building blocks. You cannot understand what is without learning what has been.

Ok, so you have a little background. Let us look at some images.

Here is the work as seen in the introduction:

Santa Trinita Madonna (Santa Trinita Maestà), Cimabue, 1280-1290, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The first thing you need to look at when observing a work is the obvious. Literally. Find something that is very clear and plain in the work. The goal here is to see what you can glean without reading the museum label.

Firstly, I see that the work is entirely two dimensional. It is very flat and I see no signs of three point perspective. Using the bank of information in my head, the first painting to use three point perspective was only painted in 1427 (Massachio's Holy Trinity), so I know that three point perspective had not been invented yet. To see a work that is only two dimensional, means that it had to have been painted before the Renaissance had even begun. There is your first step. You are establishing a timeline. I now know that this work is from before the renaissance is from a period that did not use three point perspective.

Secondly, what else is overwhelmingly obvious?

GOLD. I see an overwhelming sea of gold leaf (in person its vibrant and striking). Gold background is the big indicator of a Byzantine painting. Now I have a rough estimate of time, and I see that the technique used is that of older religious works. Gold = divinity. I reflects the essence of God.

So ok, you are in the museum, you see the gold and you identify the painting as pre Renaissance. Now if I can establish the content of the work, I will be able to better understand the period of which this work comes from.

Let's find some indicators of who these figures are. Another obvious indicator would be the title. Although I did say that we wanted to glean as much as we could without reading the label. What can I find out without seeing the name of the piece?

Again, think obviously. Two figures sit right in the middle of the work. The woman is literally huge in scale, and is the largest figure in the piece. On her lap sits a baby, with the face of a man. they both have halos around their heads. Again, from my bank of knowledge, I know these figures to be Madonna (the Virgin Mary) and Christ child.

Here is how I know this:

Firstly, the sheer size of Mary indicates that she is divine. The throne she sits on is grandiose and gilded with precious stones and mosaics.

Notice the deep blue color of Madonna's robe. No one else in the work adorns such a deep vibrant blue.

Blue pigment was the most expensive painting pigment at the time. Usually made from a special celestial blue stone called Lapis Lazuli. The stone and its color has a long association with royalty and spirituality. It is only fitting that the Virgin is represented in this rich color - and wearing so much of it. Her robes are gilded using a traditional Byzantine technique called agemina meaning "with two metals". It is the technique of gilding with two different filaments.

Now Baby Christ:

Here we see the Christ Child. As I mentioned he is often portrayed as a baby with the face of a grown man (it always weirded me out tbh). He is seen with a halo and wearing a deep red garment - mirroring that of Mary.

He holds the sign of benediction (in which his first two fingers and his thumb are extended and his third and fourth finger are closed). In images of Christ as the Pantocrator (see figure 1) his hand gesture spells out the name Jesus Christ. This hand gesture was born in Byzantine representations of Christ and helps portray him as the savior of man.

Both Mary and the Christ child are surrounded by angels. At the base of the work are prophets from the old testament, connecting the old with the new.

You have now understood a painting without knowing anything about it!

By doing a little detective work yourself has led you to establish a rough time period of the work, establish techniques common in religious works and identify religious figures simply by looking for the obvious.

Below I am going to provide a few other images from the same time periods to see if you can connect what you learned from this piece to those paintings.

Figure 1

Christus Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalù, 1130, Cefalù, Italy

Figure 2

Apse Mosaic of the Virgin and Child, Mid-Late 9th century CE, Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey

This same formula could be applied to Gothic art a period which overlaps with the Byzantine Empire:

Figure 3

Ognissanti Madonna (Madonna Enthroned), Giotto, 1310, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Figure 4

Maestà, Duccio, 1308-131, Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena, Italy.

Well there you have it folks! Some new knowledge for you. I hope you enjoyed a more general overview of Byzantine art. Let me know what you were able to glean from the images posed against the one we looked at initially. It is important that we cover all areas of art history so we can build our bank of knowledge. Comment and subscribe to my blog so you never miss a post!

See you next time,


*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.

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